An odd series of events led Jennifer Teege to discover that her grandfather was the notorious Nazi Amon Goeth. As she publishes a book about her discovery, she tells Rebecca Wallersteiner about how she came to terms with knowing that her mother’s father was the ‘butcher of Plaszow’
Jennifer Teege is in England to promote the launch of her extraordinary memoir, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, a book exploring the dark past of her family.
In the mid-1990s, when Teege was living in a rented room in Tel Aviv, she was among the millions around the world to watch Steven Spielberg’s epic film, Schindler’s List.
“At the time, I must have heard the name Amon Goeth, but didn’t realise that he had anything to do with me,” she explains. “It was a huge shock when I found out by chance years later that Goeth, the brutal Nazi commander of the Plaszow concentration camp in Poland, chillingly played by Ralph Fiennes, was my maternal grandfather.” As viewers of the film will remember, Goeth would amuse himself by taking pot shots at the Jewish inmates of the camp and encouraged his dogs to attack them. Known as the “butcher of Plaszow”, he was personally responsible for the deaths of thousands of people.
The German industrialist Oskar Schindler saved more than 1,200 Jews by bribing Goeth and other Nazis to have them work in his factories rather than be sent to their deaths. In 1946, after the war had ended, Goeth was convicted as a war criminal and hanged. Just how did Teege discover that the SS commandant portrayed in the film was her grandfather?
“When I was 38 and suffering from depression, I visited a library in Hamburg to look for psychology books. A red book caught my eye by complete chance and I noticed that it had a cover photograph of my maternal mother, Monika Hertwig (née Goeth)”.
Teege, who was born as the result of a fling between her mother and a Nigerian student and was sent to an orphanage as an infant, borrowed the book, titled I Have to Love My Father, Right?, which was based on an interview with Monika.
“What I found out challenged my identity and turned my life upside down,” she tells me. In the book, Monika talked about her father, Goeth, and his crimes against humanity. Discovering this terrible family secret deepened Teege’s depression and sent her into intensive therapy, which has helped her cope to some extent, as has having two young children and a German husband. Talking to her own children and other young people about the genocide and her grandfather’s role in it has also helped her to come to terms with her troubled heritage.
“I had not been in touch with either my biological mother or grandmother for years and had no idea about the identity of Goeth until I found the book,” says Teege, who was adopted at the age of seven and enjoyed a middle-class upbringing in Munich. She still occasionally saw her natural mother and beloved grandmother who committed suicide when Teege was 12.
“My story is one that you would never invent because no one would believe it is true. But it is true,” she tells me emphatically. Her family secret was particularly disturbing to deal with as she had lived in Israel for two years in her 20s, she speaks Hebrew and has many Jewish friends. “My Israeli friends have known me for a long time. They were shocked at my news and felt sorry for me, but we are now closer than ever,” she says.
“My grandfather would turn in his grave if he knew that he had a black granddaughter with close links to Israel.”
My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past is now available in hardback, priced £20